It might seem weird that city governments hire lobbyists to help them obtain funding from state and federal governments.
But, more and more, that’s what cities do.
Municipal officials are paying lobbying firms to help them navigate government bureaucracies and present applications that give them the best chance of winning grants, loans and tax credits to fix schools and roads, build affordable housing, beef up law enforcement and otherwise improve their communities.
It’s not cheap.
Lobbyists cost $10,000 or more a month, The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year in a story about how cities are increasingly hiring lobbyists to help them compete for an unprecedented amount of federal money that came available after President Joe Biden signed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package in November.
That’s just about what Stamford pays Sustainable Strategies DC, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist the city first hired in the 1990s, according to the firm’s February response to a city request for proposals from companies that do the work.
The Stamford Board of Representatives will vote at its June 6 meeting on whether to approve another contract with Sustainable Strategies DC, for an annual fee of $120,600.
It’s a good move, said Richard Freedman, chairman of the Stamford Board of Finance, which also must approve the fee.
“I think that, if everyone else is going to hire a lobbyist, we should have a lobbyist,” Freedman said. “The fee doesn’t seem like a large investment when there are potentially millions of dollars at stake. And we have gotten millions of dollars.”
According to its proposal, Sustainable Strategies DC has helped Stamford secure $250 million in state, federal, foundation, and other funding over two decades.
“We have represented Stamford for 20-plus years before Congress, the White House, federal agencies, the State of Connecticut, philanthropic foundations, and national enterprises seeking to support local progress,” the firm wrote in its proposal.
“We worked with several mayors, Boards of Representatives, and multiple city staff to help Stamford pursue and succeed in the creation of Mill River Park, the upgrade of the Stamford Intermodal Transportation Center, the Stamford Urban Transitway, Harbor Point and the development of South End, the rebirth of the Stamford Hospital complex, the establishment of the Fairgate housing center, the upgrade of the Clinton Manor housing center, improvements to the Stamford Water Pollution Control Authority’s facilities, the outfitting of the Stamford Police Department with new equipment, historic preservation projects, stormwater management projects, microgrid and sustainability projects, and many other initiatives.”
The lobbyist wrote that its specific successes include helping Stamford secure $1 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to hire more firefighters; a $338,346 U.S. Department of Justice grant to help fund a police body-worn camera initiative; $75 million in federal funding to build the Urban Transitway; $3.5 million in federal transportation funding for projects in the South End; $250,000 for streetscape improvements in Waterside; and $850,000 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Healthy Homes program to reduce asthma in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods.
Freedman said “the question to ask is how much is directly attributable to the lobbyist.” Stamford has a grants office that prepares the complicated documentation demonstrating how the city meets the requirements of each grant, he said.
“The grants office files the applications, and the lobbyist adds value over and above,” Freedman said. “I think it takes both.”
Not all municipalities do it. Norwalk, for example, has no lobbyist, Director of Communications Michelle Woods Matthews said.
Hiring a lobbyist is not on the radar for officials in the Town of Fairfield, said Jackie Bertolone, chief of staff to First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick.
“We got one part-time grant coordinator into the budget last year. We got it on the second try,” after an attempt the previous year, Bertolone said.
Mike Downes, chief of staff to Stratford Mayor Laura Hoydick, said that town has no lobbyist, either. Instead, Stratford has “a grants writer on staff who pursues federal, state and other sources. He’s done a pretty good job for us.”
Town departments work with their state counterparts to secure funding, Downes said. The Stratford conservation department, for example, works with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, he said.
U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro from Connecticut’s Third Congressional District, and both U.S. senators, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, “have made us aware of grant resources,” Downes said.
“Our state legislative delegation also works to do that for us,” Downes said.
Julia Payson, an assistant professor at New York University and author of the book, “When Cities Lobby,” last month wrote an analysis for The Wall Street Journal. Payson found that cities get more money from their home states after they hire lobbyists.
“But some cities benefit more than others,” Payson wrote. “Cities with higher median incomes receive more funding per capita when they lobby — in part because they spend more money and tend to lobby on more bills.”
Her analysis uncovered a benefit for cities of all income levels, Payson wrote, because they lobby not just for funding but to communicate “with elected officials in other levels of government and to advocate for policies that will benefit their residents.”
Lobbyists are a particular help for cities that face political conflict, she wrote. That includes situations in which a heavily Democratic city exists in a Republican-run state, or vice versa, she wrote.